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BLACK MIRROR’s “Arkangel” is a Helicopter Parent Horror Story

Tiny baby Sara goes missing when she’s just three years old. Her mother, Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt), takes her eyes off her for just a few seconds at the playground, but it’s enough time for the adventurous little sprout to follow a cat down the street and out of her mom’s protective bubble. It’s also enough time to fundamentally alter Marie’s priorities as a parent. That’s where the future tech of Black Mirror‘s “Arkangel” comes in.

The system that lends its name to the episode’s title is an implant inside a child’s brain that offers the parent the ability to monitor and censor what the child sees and hears. Sara effectively gets parental control codes for her reality. The barking dog that spooked a stroller-strapped Sara? Gone in a blur of pixels. Violent videos being shared on the elementary school playground? Invisible to Sara’s eyes. The implant that allows Marie to sit on her daughter’s shoulders every waking second, the device that makes her calm in the face of a dangerous world? It alienates Sara (played at age 15 by the brooding dynamo Brenna Harding) from the bruises of young life as well as from her classmates.

“Arkangel” is a mature, cautious entry in the Black Mirror universe. It’s not wantonly, pointlessly cruel like other episodes which dragged us through the rubble only to spit in our wounds. Instead of a blunt instrument, this episode is a scalpel vivisecting our fears and overreactions. Director Jodie Foster’s empathy and skill as a filmmaker are on full display, cradling us through the coming-of-age minefield until we’re in Marie’s living hell.

It’s a hell of good intentions. We never get a clear backstory for Marie, but we know she’s a single mother whose life ping-pongs between physical therapy work, the rare sexual tryst, and, above all else, her offspring. Her name is barely used in the episode, which is telling, because her existence is defined by Sara’s. It’s clear from the C-section that brings Sara into the world that Marie is both desperate for this baby and disappointed supremely in her inability to birth her naturally into the world, which leaves her decision to use technology to pull her, for all intents, out of this world a deeply ironic one.

Whenever Sara leaves her side, Sara’s life becomes Marie’s reality TV show. Like other Black Mirror horrors, this is a classic Greek tragedy (shout out to Oedipus, who gets name-checked in Sara’s class). Marie’s tragic flaw—her profound fear of losing her daughter—is what causes her ultimately to lose her daughter. What’s fascinating about Sara’s rebellion of dating bad boy Trick (Owen Teague), doing cocaine in his delivery van, and lying to her mother about all of it, is that Marie didn’t need any kind of futuristic technology to push her daughter away. Beyond the implant’s central location and godlike access to Sara’s brain, the tools of “Arkangel” to monitor and suppress childhood danger largely exist already. Tracking buttons, parental controls, online activity monitors. The most terrifying part of the episode is that it’s barely science fiction.

The episode is also a riff on the anti-vaccination movement, portraying Marie as someone who refuses to allow their child the small doses of danger early on in order to protect them from big ones down the line. Marie displays a kind of Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy where her actions pervert her daughter into someone that should need to rely solely on her mother for survival, so it’s incredible storytelling to watch as the surgical Big Brother shoved into Sara’s mind ends up altering her mother far more profoundly than it does her.

At 15, Sara is moody in a familiar way. While most parents naturally develop a sense for when their child is lying, Marie has lost a great deal of maternal instinct because she’s had training wheels on for years. Combined with her default setting of waiting for something to go wrong, she’s a poisonous mix of grossly naive and dangerously paranoid. In the end, Marie has passed her neuroses onto her child, leading to the symbolism-rich violent backlash of Sara using the Arkangel monitor to beat her mother unconscious. The only way to get her to stop watching is to shut her down.

Marie’s also obviously never heard the old one about loving something and letting it go. Which is why you want to give her a big hug and tell her that everything will be fine if she unclenches.

Then again, how can you know that for sure? Amid a swirl of ethical questions left bleeding on the pavement, “Arkangel” makes it very clear that there are no easy answers or solutions in parenting. It’s impossible to fully blame Marie, who means well with her supplement smoothies, but by having access to her child’s experiences, she simultaneously loses the desire to communicate with Sara (to discover the parts of her mind she can’t see) and gains a sense that she’s a necessary appendage that Sara will always need. That’s what allows her the truly disturbed rationale for adding a Plan B pill into Sara’s morning shake, ending a life before Sara even knew it was there, and (as a fourth layer of irony) robbing Sara of the very thing that Marie was so desperate to have.

The ending is the third element of the visual triptych that defines simplicity and brutal elegance. The first is Marie frantically crying in the street and calling three-year-old Sara’s name when she disappears from the playground. The second is Marie frantically calling other mothers from her car when Sara lies about staying at a friend’s house so she can have sex in Trick’s van. The third is Marie, once again in the street, doubled over in despair, bleeding as she frantically calls out Sara’s name, failing to get her location on the busted tablet. As Sara gets into the cab of the 18-wheeler, you know in your bones that she’s never coming back home to her mother.

Black Mirror Joy-Binge Discussion Questions:

  1. Would you implant your child with something that let you block out harmful things? If so, what would you do differently than Marie?
  2. Marie’s artist father balks at the Arkangel program because he came from a generation that let kids run free, but Marie is clearly a product of that rearing, so how good could it have been?
  3. Who is more afraid of puberty: children or their parents?

Images: Netflix

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